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Duke Ellington: The Reprise Studio Sessions
Miles Davis once told Down Beat magazine: "I think all the musicians should get together on one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke [Ellington]." Well, no one may be getting on their knees, but for the past year, in celebration of Ellington's centennial (he was born April 29, 1899) and the pseudo end of the millennium, musicians, record companies and music writers alike have been thanking the late Ellington. Jazz Times named Ellington (né Edward Kennedy Ellington) Jazz Artist of the Century. Articles assessing Duke's impact are plentiful, and tribute albums are everywhere.
Then there are the reissues and compilations of Ellington's catalog, from newly remastered versions of classic albums to boxed sets attempting to document the bandleader and composer's greatness. The most essential reissue of the past year is Columbia's Ellington at Newport 1956 (Complete), which finally presents the historic concert as it actually happened. The most over-the-top and historic is the Grammy-winning The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1927-1973. While comprehensive, the 24-disc set, at a list price of $407.99, represents only Ellington's RCA material. The bandleader recorded literally hundreds of works for other record companies, and those labels have been taking full advantage of the Duke frenzy: Approximately 400 Ellington CDs are available domestically.
While it's hard to go wrong with virtually any Ellington recording, two recently released compilations prove that some recordings are absolutely essential, while others are largely curios to completists, historians or musicians/fans on the hunt for forgotten gems.
Columbia Legacy's well-conceived The Duke: The Essential Collection (1927-1961) is a three-CD set that runs three hours, 40 minutes. Rather than present an exhaustive review of Ellington's output, Columbia picked 65 tracks representing the bandleader's different time periods with the label. (He was also recording for other companies.) No songs are duplicated.
The Duke documents Ellington's continuous musical evolution. The first disc covers 1927 through 1940, with an emphasis on classic original recordings such as "Sophisticated Lady," "In a Sentimental Mood" and "Prelude to a Kiss." Most of the material was recorded in the '30s, when Ellington led one of the best swing bands of the era, and while most of it suffers from poor sound quality, the remastering effort is exceptional. Aside from the historic value of these songs, the soloing by Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams and the rest is beyond reproach.
Since Ellington did not record for Columbia between 1940 and 1946, the second disc covers 1947 to 1952. As a result, original versions of such war-era tunes as "Take the A Train" are not here, but later versions are included.
Ellington, with the able assistance of composer/ arranger Billy Strayhorn, who joined the orchestra in 1939, continued to move forward in the early '50s, even if big band hit a slump between 1952 and 1956. The third disc covers Ellington's last stint for Columbia, from 1956 to 1962, including a tune, "Jeep's Blues," from the orchestra's famous (and exceptional) 1956 "comeback" concert in Newport.
By including lesser-known compositions ("On a Turquoise Cloud," "Lady of the Lavender Mist" and "Snibor"), as well as selections from his more monumental recordings (Black, Brown and Beige) and of course the hits, Columbia Legacy has created a fine overview of Ellington and Strayhorn's multifaceted career. This is a fine introduction to the Duke's genius, and at around $40, an affordable one.
Unlike in his previous periods, Ellington, while with Reprise, recorded more arrangements of non-original material than ever. Walt Disney even commissioned the bandleader to record Duke Ellington Plays with the Original Score from Walt Disney's Mary Poppins. Sounds ridiculous -- until you hear how Ellington and Strayhorn transform the compositions into solid jazz numbers. Like pianist Art Tatum, Ellington and Strayhorn made good songs great and (in most cases) bad songs at the very least good. "Chim Chim Cheree," with its barroom piano, sexy trumpet growls, ever-so-smooth reed section and Paul Gonsalves's bop-style sax solo, is actually hip. Strayhorn masterfully arranges "Feed the Birds" into something almost spiritual in nature.
As with all of Mosaic's releases, the liner notes are extremely well researched, and the session documentation is stellar. If anything, The Reprise Studio Sessions documents an artist who continued to grow well into his golden years, a time when most artists consider retiring. Filled with some splendid moments, the boxed set is an important piece to complete the Duke Ellington picture. At the same time, it can be recommended only after one has explored the more essential Ellington recordings. That said, the $80 spent on this collection could never be considered a bad investment, musically or historically. -- Paul J. MacArthur
Duke Ellington: The Reprise Studio Sessions is available exclusively from Mosaic Records (www.mosaicrecords.com), 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Connecticut 06902, (203)327-7111.